The Big Picture: Fight poverty once again

In 1967, Ken Coates and Richard Silburn published: St Ann’s: Poverty, Deprivation and Morale in a Nottingham Community. Their investigation of a neighbourhood, conducted by adult education students, showed that more than one-third of residents were poor and that more than 90% had no indoor toilet.

They were building on the work of the great Peter Townsend. As early as the 1950s, while meeting unemployed people in Lancashire, he concluded that the national assistance rates were too low. He and Brian Abel-Smith, redefined the poverty line as 40% above the scale rates. Their book The Poor and the Poorest (1965) established that 14% of the population were in poverty.

Coates and publisher Penguin followed with Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen, which had five reprints. The 1960s were not just about the Beatles and marching against the Vietnam War. The decade was also marked by the rediscovery of poverty.

As a social work student in the early 1960s, I did not receive one lecture on poverty. Generally, it was assumed that the welfare state had abolished it.

By the late 1960s, I was helping at an adventure playground in Handsworth, Birmingham, which involved local families. One woman and her husband lived in a privately rented damp basement in which the sole means of heating was to open the oven door. The husband’s low wages meant they could not afford to move. One day, in despair, the wife arrived with the children at our home. They stayed until a housing association took them in.

I too had rediscovered poverty and joined with a growing number of social workers who argued that poor people needed money not just counselling.

In 2007, dire poverty is being rediscovered again. Research by Save the Children reveals there are 90,000 children with parents whose income is less than £7,000 a year in a society where others get £70,000 and more.

Townsend waged war on a Labour government that tinkered with but did not counter poverty. Coates’ and Silburn’s analysis was that poverty would remain as long as the market dominated economic and social policy. They and others called for a massive redistribution of income and wealth. In old age, Townsend, Coates and Silburn still keep the faith, still advocating the case for equality. We need a new generation of people like them.

Bob Holman is an author and voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow.

➔ Coates and Silburn’s books have just been reprinted.  

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